“The True Story Behind The Writing of ‘The Duelist'” (by David Dean)

Over the nearly thirty years in which David Dean has been contributing stories to EQMM, he’s proved popular with the magazine’s readers. In 2007 he took first place for the EQMM Readers Award with “Ibrahim’s Eyes”; in 2012 he came in second for “Mariel”; and in 2018 he placed third for his haunting tale “Sofee”— which is also our most recent podcast episode. Through all of the years of excellent contributions from David, however, we’ve never before seen a reaction from readers as enthusiastic as that we are seeing now for his story “The Duelist,” in our current issue, May/June 2018. In view of the warm reception the story is getting, we thought readers would be interested in knowing how David came to write it.—Janet Hutchings

This past April my wife, Robin, “She Who Walks in Beauty,” and I were fortunate enough to attend the Dell Magazine Readers Award party. I’ve been a regular at this gathering for some years, but each and every time I arrive, I get a thrill looking around the crowded room and seeing all those writers whose stories I enjoy so much. I write too, but I don’t get the same kind of feeling about myself when I look in the mirror. I usually just think, “You look like you need some sleep.” Maybe it’s the thought of my own writing that does that.

So you can imagine my surprise at this year’s fete when I was approached by several authors that I admire wanting to talk about my tale “The Duelist.” Instead of warning me that I would be hearing from their attorneys over some minor plagiarism infringement (I’m so tired of that), it soon became apparent that they wanted to know what had driven me to write the story. I was terribly flattered and really wanted to launch into some scholarly dissertation on the crafting of a tale set in a different era, and how in doing so one must be aware of the mores, morals, and . . . blah, blah, blah. The truth was I really didn’t have an answer.

I think I said something like, “Umm . . . I’d been thinking about dueling (which is bizarre on the face of it and probably made people uncomfortable) and . . . umm . . . so thought I’d write about it . . . and then I did . . . write . . . about it.”

It may have been the excellent Dave Zeltserman who suffered through this explanation. As he walked away I pictured a thought balloon over his head reading, “Enough monkeys . . . enough typewriters. . . .”

I think I inflicted something similar on the talented Doug Allyn and his delightful wife, Eve. She forgave me, however, because she really liked the story and was also very excited that I had given the protagonist the surname LeClair, which is her family name.

Before the evening was over, I felt confident that no one knew why, or how, I had written “The Duelist” and were convinced that I didn’t, either. So when Janet Hutchings reached out to me to write something about this very same story, I thought, “Providence has intervened with a chance at redemption!”

I’d also had a lot of time to think up stuff.

In all truthfulness, I seldom give much thought as to why I write a particular story. I’m not out to accomplish anything other than entertaining the reader, which can be a tall order in of itself. I have no ideological subtext to sell beyond what I bring to the writing as the inevitable result of just being me, a composite of my own experiences. Which is true of all writers, I suspect, as well as artists, actors, cops, and plumbers. We can’t get away from ourselves. But I do try, which is why I write fiction and not autobiographies. Still.

“The Duelist” is what’s called historical fiction, and yes, I do get the irony. I haven’t written but a few, and I only wrote those because the stories would not have worked set in modern times. In fact, one of them, “Her Terrible Beauty,” also had a duel scene, but the plot was not built around it, and it was a knife fight—ugly affairs—not the classic back-to-back with pistols. Question: “Who’s the winner of a knife fight?” Answer: “The second man to die.” That’s my only knife fight joke. It may be the only one there is.

So also did “The Duelist” demand a historical context both because of its plot and its characters. But it was also because of the language. In many ways, the story is much more about language—what is being said, and how, as well as what is not said but lies beneath—than it is about the violence that serves to frame the story and provide its impetus.

Language was taken seriously in the 1840s when my tale is set. If you’ve read much in the way of speeches, stories, newspaper articles, etc., of early America, you probably know what I mean. It could be downright florid (think Poe at his most overwrought). It was not used simply to convey information or requests, but as a means of identifying oneself as a certain kind of person, whether you were that kind of person might be debatable.

Words used unwisely or intemperately could also get one killed. So too could being misunderstood. In a world where lawsuits and law enforcement were not quite so common a remedy to disputes, good manners could save your life. Unlike today, where it often seems we communicate in halting, broken sentences, and incomplete thoughts, eloquence was considered a distinct asset in the not-so-distant past.

My protagonist, Darius LeClair, is well aware of this and uses his talent for it like a rapier, never skewering his opponent but pricking him over and over. But to what purpose? If you haven’t read it, then I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that Darius is an onion-like character comprised of many layers, and therein lies the tale.

What I can state is that the story is one about deception and truth, vengeance and justice, bravery and cowardice, love and loss. But it’s mostly about bullying, and that’s why I wrote it, though I didn’t think of it at the time. It was only later that I recognized my motivation.

Most of us have experienced being bullied or made afraid by someone at some time in our lives. I am no exception. In fact, looking back on my life I suspect that it had something to do with me choosing to be a police officer for twenty-five years. I wanted to protect people. Well, that, and I didn’t want to end up in the slammer like Uncle Jimmy. I don’t like bullies. My guess is that you don’t either.

Growing up in a very blue-collar neighborhood (we didn’t use the term “working-class” in the 1950s and 60s—that was commie talk) I got into a lot of fights. Not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t seem to get away from them. We had evolved beyond armed duels at this point, but not by much. Everybody fought—at least if you were a boy or man. It seemed we only resorted to verbal communication when all other means had been exhausted.

I was a small kid and a bit on the sensitive side. Okay, a lot on the sensitive side, and I liked to read. Guess what these characteristics got me? Yep, you guessed it. Sometimes I won, and a lot of times I didn’t, and I hated every fight I was in, and I was in a lot of them.

Like most kids, I could be quite ruthless when provoked or wronged, and I was not above the art of the ambush. If I had been bullied or beaten up by a bigger, older kid, which was more frequent than I liked, I got revenge . . . or was it justice? To children, they’re one and the same. It becomes more problematic as we mature, however, as our consciences develop, and we become more empathetic with our fellow humans. What remains, however, is our desire to have wrongs righted.

Maybe that’s why I wrote this story and why Darius was created. I got to even the score of long-ago wrongs . . . and then some. Perhaps that’s why “The Duelist” seems to have struck such a deep chord with readers as well—we all want a champion, we all wish to live without fear, and we all love someone. And aren’t those things worth a fight? I think so, I really do.

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7 Responses to “The True Story Behind The Writing of ‘The Duelist'” (by David Dean)

  1. Art Taylor says:

    I loved this story, David— and so much appreciate the story behind the story here too!

  2. pauldmarks says:

    Interesting background on the story, David. And I really enjoyed it, too, as we discussed in private. Because of certain situations in my background, I’ve also felt the need to protect others as well as myself, and I’m also not a big guy. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve mellowed. But it’s still nice to see bullies get their comeuppance.

  3. Joseph Maniscalco says:

    Probably the first story I read as the issue appeared! Great one!

  4. R.T.Raichev says:

    Congratulations on winning! It is a marvelous story with a very subtle psychological build-up. The suspense is beautifully maintained — I had to cover paragraphs as I read in order not to spoil it! Tho I guessed the true nature of the revenge. Altogether very clever in a bitter-sweet way. Will make a good movie. The only slightly jarring note — ‘you venomous troll’ — and later ‘trolling’. Too internet modern, surely?

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